This morning, after forty-two months of trying to stay out, the United States launched airstrikes into Syria. The strikes overwhelmingly targeted the Islamic State in ar-Raqqa City and its surrounding areas, reportedly killing seventy I.S. jihadists, but there was a second barrage of strikes in Idlib, which are said to have killed fifty jihadists, and were directed against a shadowy outfit that emerged in the press a little over a week ago called the Khorasan Group.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning:
“U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners. … Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S. … The Khorasan cell is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said. One official said Khorasan wants to set up camps in Syria specifically to train militants holding Western passports. … Two officials said Nusra Front is intent on attacking U.S. interests in Europe because such an attack would grab more headlines and sow more fear than an attack on Americans in the Middle East.”
And the New York Times front page followed up on Sunday, saying that while there is “almost no public information” on “Khorasan,” the group is believed to be an “offshoot” of Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The Times said that its membership was almost wholly concealed, except for the fact it was led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a former intimate of Osama bin Laden and a leader of the Iran-based Qaeda network. The group was “said to be particularly interested in devising terror plots using concealed explosives“.
The first thing to happen was another of those wonderful lexicographical disputes—not unlike the one we’re still in over ISIS/ISIL, three months after the group has abandoned the name—so the spelling was variously Khorosan, Khorasan, or Khurasan. But there were then rather more serious analytical questions, namely where had this group—”as much of a danger as the Islamic State,” as the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, put it on Sept. 18—suddenly come from? The answer is rather simple: it was there all along.
Khorasan (the spelling I shall be going with) is the name Salafi-jihadists, who reject all borders between Muslim-majority countries, give to the region of South Central Asia that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan. And al-Khorasaniyeen (the Khorassanites) referred to a group of al-Qaeda’s Old Guard, trained in Taliban Afghanistan, who had been sent from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Syria by al-Qaeda “Central” (AQC) to join Nusra and, among other things, prevent it from the more national path of Salafist groups like Ahrar a-Sham. In short, to the extent the “Khorasan Group” exists it refers to a set of individuals—and possibly a specialised unit (we just do not know)—within Jabhat an-Nusra who are focussed on international terrorism against the West rather than the fighting in Syria—and this is the newsworthy bit because as it happens we are not so uninformed about who they are.
Abu Khalid as-Suri, an al-Qaeda veteran, was appointed Ayman az-Zawahiri’s mediator between then-ISIS and Nusra, and Abu al-Hassan, a former Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, both formally joined Ahrar a-Sham—Abu Khalid is now dead, struck down by the I.S., though Hassan remains a senior commander for Ahrar—but would both surely count as Khorassanites. Ahrar has worked closely with Nusra and clearly has pro-Qaeda factions in its leadership, even if this has distanced in recent months. (There was a claim that the U.S. struck an Ahrar headquarters in Kafr Daryan, Idlib.)
The other Khorassanites, however, all joined Nusra directly. The aforementioned Fadhli is—or perhaps, was: rumours as this was posted suggest he was killed in the strikes—a very important man in al-Qaeda’s network, tied to several terrorist attacks against Western interests in his native Kuwait, including the Oct. 8, 2002 attack against U.S. Marines stationed on Kuwait’s Faylaka Island and a 2009 plot against Camp Arifjan that was prevented. Fadhli is also suspected of involvement in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and supported Abu Musab az-Zarqawi’s operations inside Iraq when what is now the Islamic State was “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (AQM). There is then Abd al-Muhsin Abd Allah Ibrahim as-Sharikh (a.k.a. Sanafi an-Nasr), who headed al-Qaeda’s “victory committee,” which is responsible for developing and implementing al-Qaeda’s strategy and policies. A third cousin of Osama bin Laden, Sharikh is one of the most wanted men by Saudi Arabia, and, despite reports he was killed in the fighting in Latakia in March, the sanctions levied against him by the U.S. Treasury on August 22 suggest he is still alive and still a senior Nusra leader. Al-Qaeda’s former head of security for counterintelligence, Abu Wafa as-Saudi, is in Syria fighting for Nusra, as is Abu Humam as-Suri, who heads Nusra’s paramilitary forces. Abu Firas as-Suri, a founding member of al-Qaeda, is also among Nusra’s number.
The importing of an AQC bureaucracy into Syria is something that has gotten nothing like the attention it deserves because the appearance of these figures was interpreted by many as nothing but a propaganda move to legitimise Nusra against the I.S., but the evidence is that this is rather more extensive.
As to why the United States government invented the Khorasan group, the answer likely is that it is a way of deniably hitting Jabhat an-Nusra, probably because of Nusra’s popularity, which would explain these press leaks as a means of preparation. Nusra functioned as a terrorist group up to the summer of 2012, but abandoned suicide attacks against civilians after that, moved to insurgent tactics, and positioned itself—with among other things a vigorous media campaign—as the leading edge of the insurgency. Nusra’s strategy was to “deal with people well, and then after a while … tell them, ‘The al Qaeda that was smeared in the media? This is it’.” This meant holding off on implementing the hudud, justified as a war-time exigency, and focussing on dawa (missionary work), converting the population to their version of Islam before imposing a theocracy. It is a program that has not been without success. There have been signs recently Nusra is losing its centralised command, and its Idlib branch has taken to imposing the Holy Law and the attacking the rebellion, but for now this seems to be a localised phenomenon.
The CENTCOM explanation for the attacks on the Khorassanites was that it was to disrupt an “imminent attack” against U.S. and Western interests, which could well be true because it must have been known that there would be a cost to the United States in standing with Syrian insurgents whom Washington wants to deputise to uproot the Islamic State’s proto-Caliphate. President Obama in his speech today referred to the Syrian opposition as the best “counterweight to ISIL and the Assad regime.” This is a first: Assad does not usually get mentioned when the President uses that formulation. The suspicion arises that this is a second track of outreach: a deniable strike against Nusra, which has an agenda separate from the Syrians but which has nonetheless won many hearts and minds, combined with finally rhetorically recognising the primary concern of the rebels, which is Assad, as the U.S. prepares to train and arm them against the Islamic State (a strategy doomed to failure on its current course, but that’s for another time).
The U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria are certainly not enough on their own to destroy the Takfiri Caliphate—with or without the “full participation” of four Arab States and “supporting role” of Qatar. If the U.S. attacks the I.S. and leaves the Assad regime alone it will have played straight into the dictator’s hands. But the chance that the strikes might allow Jabhat an-Nusra to fill the vacuum—to control areas where it can open training camps, for example—now takes on a new urgency as it elucidates the much-disputed question of the role of al-Qaeda’s Senior Leadership (AQSL) in the jihadist network’s actions, and raises the question of what the graduates of those camps would do, whether they would focus on regional conflicts or direct terrorism against the West. I will take this topic up in a subsequent post.
UPDATE: On Oct. 1, 2014, Jenan Moussa at al-Aan TV had a scoop: surveying the wreckage of a compound in Muhandaseen, Aleppo, documents showed that this had been the headquarters of the thirteen-man “Wolf Unit of Jabhat al-Nusra” (four Turks, two Egyptians, two Yemenis, two Tunisians, a Palestinian, a Serb, and someone from the Caucasus.) What the West had taken to calling the “Khorasan Group” was, as I speculated, a specialised unit within Jabhat an-Nusra. Fifty Nusra jihadists and no civilians had been killed in Muhandaseen in strikes on two Nusra villas and a training camp. The first barrage of coalition airstrikes on Sept. 23 had also cut down the leader of the Wolf Unit, Abu Yousef al-Turki (a Turk), a famous Nusra sniper, in Deir Ezzor. Also killed was Abu Hajar al-Masri (an Egyptian).
UPDATE 2: In an interview with Jihadology about the “Khorasan Group” on Oct. 7, 2015, Thomas Joscelyn said the reports that the “Wolf Unit” is the “Khorasan Group” are not correct. In reality, says Joscelyn, the Wolf Unit is a commando-type unit within Nusra that does specialist military training, especially snipers, and it was led by Abu Yusuf al-Turki, who has an extensive al-Qaeda dossier and who did train some of the Khorasannites.